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Vintage Posters From America's War Years: A Memorial Day Reflection

Kenneth, born and raised in the South, resides in Hamilton, Alabama. He enjoys sharing his unique perspectives on life through his writing.

The vintage posters below helped Americans rally for the war effort.

The vintage posters below helped Americans rally for the war effort.

In Memory of Austin Avery, a World War II Veteran

The Importance of Freedom

Freedom, as protected by the U.S. Constitution, is more than just a brown, aging parchment protected by federal law beneath a bulletproof sheet of glass. Freedom is an attitude, a feeling in the hearts of our citizens. We enjoy being able to set out in our own direction in our lives. We love being part of a country where opinions and ideas are freely expressed.

When international conflict arises, and all avenues of civil discussion and negotiation have failed, then the civil-thinking turns to survival thinking, and steps must be taken to ensure that freedom and democracy can flourish in our country instead of giving up our civil rights.

Give me liberty, or give me death!

— Patrick Henry, 1775

Freedom was why the United States fought in the world wars—freedom to have a family, job, security, and peace. The U.S. is still the hope of foreign countries where citizens, subdued by a despot, live in fear because open assemblies to protest the government's policy are forbidden.

The Four Freedoms

In President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1941 State of the Union address to the American people, he described four freedoms: freedom from want, freedom from fear, freedom to worship, and freedom of speech.

Inspired by FDR's speech, popular American artist and illustrator Norman Rockwell took the freedom theme to create posters for funding the war effort. These posters appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1943 and remain in the U.S. Treasury Collection today. Among the four million posters printed during the war, the four-freedoms posters became the most popular.

"To Have and to Hold," poster art by Vic Guinnell (1944).

"To Have and to Hold," poster art by Vic Guinnell (1944).

The "To Have and to Hold" Poster

Little information is available about Vic Guinnell, but the surname is common in the State of Massachusetts.

The man's cleverness is evident in the multiple meaning of the phrase "To Have and to Hold" on the poster. For example, the phrase is commonly used in wedding vows. On the poster, the phrase directly refers to the youthful soldier holding onto the flag, which implies the freedoms associated with it. Finally, war bonds were something a purchaser had to "hold" for the government bond to reach maturity when the value usually doubled.

"O'er the Ramparts," poster art by Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer (1944).

"O'er the Ramparts," poster art by Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer (1944).

Background of USAAF O'er the Ramparts Poster

The image of the young man standing in the clouds and holding a rocket-shaped bomb was created by Jes Wilhelm Schlaikjer to help recruit training pilots for the U.S. Army Air Force during WWII.

While enlisted in the U.S. Army, Schlaikjer was chosen as the War Department artist in 1942. He painted not only posters for the branches of the military but for the Red Cross as well.

"Sub Spotted," poster art by McClelland Barclay, USNR (1942).

"Sub Spotted," poster art by McClelland Barclay, USNR (1942).

The "Sub Spotted" Poster

The creator of the "Sub Spotted" poster was McClelland Barclay, who served as a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve in 1938. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he went on active duty and eventually reached the rank of lieutenant commander, the rank he held until his death in 1943.

"You Buy 'Em, We'll Fly 'Em," poster art by Walter J. and Walter G, Wilkinson (1942).

"You Buy 'Em, We'll Fly 'Em," poster art by Walter J. and Walter G, Wilkinson (1942).

The “You Buy ‘em, We’ll Fly ‘em” Poster

This poster created by the Wilkinson father-son team began with pencil sketches, which were then transferred to canvas using a pantograph. The U.S. Treasury then photographed the final painting for mass distribution, an unprecedented 1.5 million posters.

Notice the pilot's smile, the thumb-up, and the colonial Minuteman in the lower right-hand corner of the poster. Positive images are needed for morale during wartime.

"His Life Is in Your Hands," poster art by John Vickery (1942).

"His Life Is in Your Hands," poster art by John Vickery (1942).

"His Life Is in Your Hands" Poster

This action poster by John Vickery encouraged weapons factory workers back home in the U.S. of the importance of their workmanship, accuracy and quality. The war effort depended upon many people working together successfully. A majority of the factory jobs were held by women.

"We Have Just Begun to Fight," poster art by Norman Rockwell (1943).

"We Have Just Begun to Fight," poster art by Norman Rockwell (1943).

The "We Have Just Begun to Fight" Poster

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, a whole new facet of WWII opened, this time the Pacific. The top seven locales listed on the poster are all part of the Pacific Ocean.

Casablanca, Algiers, and Tunisia, though, were part of Germany's Erwin Rommel's effort to block the Allies, consisting of 26 nations, from defeating Italy, which was part of the Axis at the time. The Axis had invaded Africa and were attempting to hold onto it. Many allied countries had established interests in northern Africa.

The poster reminded everyone, soldiers and workers at home, that the war wasn't over and that, through the expression of this poster, we had to continue cooperation and muster our determination.

A Farewell Sentiment

I do not know of any American living today who doesn't love the freedoms that our servicemen and women have fought for and kept. I, for one, salute all of our heroes in the Armed Forces then and now for all of their sacrifices to help keep our country the best nation on the face of the earth.


Most of the information in this article was retrieved from archives of the U.S. Treasury Department and the War Department, for which I am grateful.

I also wish to thank Marie Flint for editing and adapting my original article for Memorial Day. Thank you, Marie!

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.